Homily - 175th Anniversary of St Matthew's Catholic Church, Windsor, NSW
The history of Windsor and this Church is very much connected to the Governorship of Lachlan Macquarie who officially proclaimed the establishment of the town on 15 December, 1810. Macquarie, an army man, was the first military governor of the colony of NSW and the last autocratic governor. Whilst many in his time were very critical of his policies, which subsequently led to his resignation in 1821 and his return to Great Britain where he died in 1824, he nevertheless provided a legacy for the new colony that was built upon by succeeding generations of leaders and settlers. Fiercely Scottish, and fiercely Protestant, he wanted to ensure that the very foundations of British culture and religion would be fostered in this new land. Given that Windsor is the third oldest settlement in Australia he wanted to establish what he saw as being the most essential institutions that would serve the new town; a church, a school house, a gaol and a pub! The church of course was not the building we occupy today, but rather the one adjacent across the park – the other St Matthew’s! The catholic parish was erected in 1832 and it is noted in the parish history that Bishop Bede Polding made the comment that “of the 140-odd communicants, no more than six or eight had been to confession for many years.” Once could only assume from his comment that sin was light on in Windsor! When I first came here in 1990 and resided for six months with Fr Jim Dooley I asked him how it was that both the Anglican and Catholic Churches bore the dedication St Matthew. Whether apocryphal or not he explained that Governor Macquarie had insisted that all residents of the new town must participate in Divine Worship on a Sunday at St Matthew’s Church. This of course provided a dilemma for the Catholics who were forbidden to participate in schismatic worship, and so the decision was made that the Catholic church should also be titled St Matthew which meant that Catholic townsfolk could happily comply with the local ordinance! It says something of the wry sense of humour and mischievous nature of our forebears in faith in this town. As there were challenges in those early years for Fr Dowling, Fr Corcoran and their parishioners, so too for the twenty three parish priests who followed, the administrators and assistant clergy there have been times of trial and tribulation, as well as times of rejoicing and triumph. Along with the clergy we must also acknowledge the significant contribution of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan (founded by Polding) and their continuous presence in Windsor underpinning the life of the Catholic community by providing Catholic education for the children of the town, and later a diverse range of ministries.
Much of course has changed since those days. This Church of St Matthew proudly stands here today in its restored and refurbished beauty as a great testament to Catholic faith and practice on mainland Australia, and which continues to provide a place for this current generation of “Windsorites.” It is a tangible reminder of the early struggles of the Catholic community in the fledging colony of NSW to establish a meaningful and respected presence in the life of what would emerge to be this great land of Australia. Critical reflection on the past should always ultimately leads us to reflect on the future.
Today’s scripture readings provide a rich source of contemplation for a day such as this. Jeremiah who is not usually noted for his optimism given the impending doom for the people of Israel and the fate of Jerusalem, provides a different tone in the passage from his Book of Consolation. He calls God’s chosen people, and by default through baptism that means us, to share in the great harvest of joy that God will bring what appears to be a remnant and transform it into a great throng. It is God’s purpose and will that all people should come to know him, even “the blind and the lame, mothers and those with child.” Even though they are still in need Jeremiah says that their tears will vanish and they will know the consolation of God’s love and be guided to living waters. The story of Bartimaeus in the Gospel of Mark today is compelling and dramatic as it provides a template for anyone who would be a disciple of Jesus, and for those seeking the consolation of God’s love that Jeremiah alludes to. The actions of this blind man are worth focusing on. Bartimaeus we are told is on the ‘side of the road’ – he is not ‘on the way’ which for Mark denotes not only the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, but also the journey of every disciple. He calls out those words that have become so well known in the Jesus Prayer uttered by countless souls throughout history: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Whilst he may have been visually impaired, he certainly did not lack courage and despite verbal opposition from those around him persisted in his cry. The following actions from Bartimaeus are both vivid and telling: “he threw aside his cloak”, that is, he abandoned his former way of life symbolized in the cloak that provided his security as a beggar and would have caught the offerings made by those who passed by. He sprang up – the Greek word here is anastas the same root for the word rising in Greek, which invites us to life with Christ that leads to resurrection. His coming to Jesus invites a personal encounter and the same question that Jesus addressed in the gospel to James and John in the previous section: “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus responds “That I might see again.” Here the Greek word is significant anablepo means to look upwards, to recover sight. In others words, Bartimaeus had not always been sightless… he once had sight, had lost it for some reason and now seeks to regain it but in a far more significant and fulsome manner. In restoring his sight Jesus recognizes his confession of faith which not only restores his physical sight but has resulted because of the eyes of faith. Bartimaeus responds to such graciousness by joining Jesus “on the way” – he follows him and thus becomes a disciple just like us. In setting this up Mark contrasts the spiritual blindness of the disciples James and John who had sought when asked the question by Jesus: “What do you want of me?” they responded by requesting honour and glory by having thrones to sit on! Discipleship is not about self-aggrandizement but rather a life of service lived following the example of Jesus. Our task as a Catholic community is the same as those who began this enterprise in Windsor two centuries ago. We are called to live as authentic disciples of Jesus Christ in the world of our own time. This community is called to be a beacon of light, a place of hospitality, a refuge for the poor and hurting, for those on the margins. If we were simply to rest on the achievements of the past we would atrophy and the mission of the Church would fritter away and we would simply be left with a historical monument – only of interest to those who have a fascination with the past. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews happily reminds us: “… we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” For one hundred and seventy-five years Catholics in Windsor have been approaching that throne of grace, and have found mercy and grace in times of need. The task before us and those who will be the Catholic community of Windsor in the future will be to make that mercy known which only comes from faith in Jesus Christ. This forthcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis could not be a more excellent launching pad for the next chapter of the long Catholic history of the Parish of Windsor.